Interview: Don Lemon, CNN’s openly gay anchorman

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Don Lemon is an Edward R Murrow Award-winning reporter and news anchor for CNN. As the weekend face of CNN Newsroom he can be seen each week in more than 100m US households. He publicly came out in his recent book, Transparent. Laurence Watts caught up with him to find out more.

“I always wanted to be a journalist, ever since I can remember as a kid,” Lemon, 45, tells me. “For a while I told people I wanted to be a lawyer. My dad was an attorney and suggested I become one as well, but once I saw people like Peter Jennings and Max Robinson on ABC’s World News Tonight I was like: that’s what I want to do.”

At the time, TV’s representation of African Americans consisted mostly of caricatures. Max Robinson and Lemon’s local news anchor, Jean West, broke the mould in that respect and provided inspiration for him when he was young.

“My mum told me the story of a time we were on vacation. I’m too young to remember it myself, but it happened in the late 60s or early 70s when black and white didn’t mix so readily down south. She said I would go around to different tables, including white families, asking people questions. She yelled at me: “Come back here!” But my dad told her: ‘No, don’t teach that kid to be afraid of anyone’. Since then I’ve always asked a lot of questions.”

Lemon claims one of the factors that makes him a good journalist is his diverse background. As a gay African American he believes he’s more empathetic to people’s stories. While the public has been aware of his Emmy award-winning journalism for some time, they only recently found out he was gay.

“If I hadn’t been asked to write a book I think I would have come out publicly anyway, sooner or later. I was already out in my personal life and in my professional life too with those I had a personal connection with. I just hadn’t said or written the words publicly.”

Lemon’s book is dedicated to the late Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his dorm-mates allegedly filmed him in a personal encounter with a male friend.

“I don’t want there to be any more Tyler Clementis,” says Lemon. “When I was first approached to write a book I kept saying no because I thought I didn’t have anything to contribute. When I finally sat down to write I realised I did have a story: a book that would have helped me as a kid or as an adult. I decided to dedicate the book to Tyler and to others like him.”

Though Lemon’s coming out took up just a few pages, the announcement made headlines. Partly this was because of his professional standing and high profile within the African American community, but it also stood in contrast to the stance taken by one of his CNN colleagues.

In May 2007, America’s OUT Magazine ran a story purportedly outing Jodie Foster and CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Cooper made no comment on the story and avoids discussing his private life, citing a desire to protect his neutrality as a journalist. Why wasn’t neutrality an issue for Lemon?

“I don’t think you’re necessarily not neutral if you’re gay; it doesn’t somehow take away my brain or my two decades in professional journalism. I don’t think it matters in any sense if you’re straight or gay, just as it doesn’t matter that I have a mortgage and cover the mortgage crisis or that I have investments and cover Wall St.”

Over the years Lemon has covered many of the day’s top stories. His Edward R Murrow Award came for coverage of the October 2002 capture of the Washington DC snipers. Lemon also covered February 2003’s Space Shuttle Columbia explosion and August 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. He also reported live from the Mall during Barack Obama’s January 2009 inauguration.

“It was amazing.” Lemon tells me. “I was very proud that our country had evolved to a place where we could elect an African American, but I think I will be just as proud when we elect our first female or Hispanic president. It’s just a good reflection on America that we’ve come this far.”

Since he has a foot, as it were, in both camps, I ask him if he thinks Obama has done enough for the African American and gay communities? Which of the two does he think has it hardest in America today?

“I think there’s always room for improvement. Though in some ways Obama’s done more than those before him, I think any president can always do more. As to who has it hardest I would have to say that I’ve personally been discriminated against more for being African American than for being gay.”

Given African Americans’ historic struggle, I tell him the reported homophobia within that community surprises me. Surely a community that has experienced discrimination would be less likely to discriminate against others?

“I think there’s homophobia in every ethnicity. The reason homosexuality for the most part is not accepted in black society is because the church has been the backbone of the African American community for so long. It’s getting better though and I have to say that I’ve received overwhelming support from African Americans, especially women who have said: ‘Your sexuality doesn’t matter to me, what matters to me is that you’re a good journalist’.”

In Transparent, Lemon also reveals that as a child he was sexually abused by a man. Did that abuse complicate his efforts to come to terms with his sexuality?

“I knew I was gay before I was abused as a child even though it happened at a young age. Did it cause problems with regard to coming to terms with my sexuality? I’m sure it did, but no more than any of the other issues it’s caused me. It caused me to be isolated, not to trust people and it caused me to have intimacy issues with romantic relationships.

“I knew that by revealing I was gay at the same time as talking publicly about the abuse people would probably try and conflate the two, but had my abuser been a woman that would have been confusing as well. Most abusers are heterosexual and I’m sure that affects straight men and women who were abused and I’m sure they have issues with sexuality as well. They don’t have issues with homosexuality though because that’s not what they are.”

As a journalist constantly meeting people as either news subjects or colleagues, I wonder if, before the book’s publication, he was he ever worried an acquaintance or colleague might deliberately or accidentally out him.

“It was something that I thought about in the back of my mind,” he answers calmly and confidently, “but I didn’t actively worry about it because at the end of the day I was never ashamed of who or what I am.”